Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Spring at Talula's Table: The Food

As promised, we’re back in action today with a few words to add background flavor to yesterday’s foray into photojournalism.

It’s been more than a year now since Franz Lidz’s story for Condé Nast Portfolio and Alex Chadwick’s feature on NPR brought Talula’s Table – the country’s toughest reservation, according to Lidz – to seemingly worldwide attention. The year that’s followed has seen the demise, among other things, of some of Philadelphia’s top restaurants as well as of Portfolio. But Talula’s is still going strong. Reservations are still being taken a year out to the day for that elusive spot at their farmhouse table.

Suffice it to say that I’m not a guy who plans much of anything, especially not a meal, a full year out. So the kitchen table at Talula’s, which seats two-to-six people rather than the eight-to-twelve in the main room and is more of a locals-only or by-invitation affair, has been a bit of a blessing in allowing me to sneak in for the occasional short notice meal whipped up by one of the most talented kitchen crews around.

A few weeks back now, only a day or two after thinking it had been way too long, I got the call-up letting me know there had been a last minute cancellation. I jumped.

Amuse Bouche

A new twist since my last visit, hors d’oeuvre have been added to the array of courses, ostensibly to provide guests with something to tame their bellies during the 30-40 minute period between arrival at 7:00 (market closing time) and seating for the first course. Tuna tartare with queso fresco and parmiggiano frito (at left) and Toscana salami with taleggio and pickled peppers. The salami was chopped and lashed with a mustard-rich sauce. Addictively good.

Spring Radish Maxime, Sweet Butter, Balinese Salt, Chives and Smoked Local Rockfish Salad

When preparing the same menu six or seven nights a week for a month at a time, it’s only natural that there will be – and should be – an evolution of certain dishes, whether due to shifting availability of ingredients or to refinements in preparation. Given the menu description, I’d expected radishes to play the starring role. Apparently they did in early April, but by the end of the month this course had morphed toward a reversal of the dish description, with lightly smoked rockfish filet taking center stage and radishes serving as seasonal accent.

Shaved Scallops, Our Bacon, Creamy Anson Mills Heirloom Polenta and Lettuce Sauce

I love scallops. The huge specimen you see above is a Barnegat Light sea scallop – local and about as fresh as it gets unless you’re eating them on the boat. I love bacon. This was house made, then frozen, micro-planed and air dried for 24 hours to form “bacon dust” as a seasoning for the dish. I loved the anise overtone provided by a sprig or two of chervil. But it was the supporting player, the polenta from heirloom grain specialist Anson Mills, that stole the show. Cooked with nothing more than water and a pinch of salt, it was freakishly delicious, a textbook example of why it’s so important to work with quality ingredients.

Goat Cheese Gnocchi, Morning Picked Mushrooms, Sherry Scented Butter Sauce

In one preparation or another, goat cheese gnocchi have been a core element in Bryan Sikora’s arsenal ever since the early days at Django. In one of their more refined presentations, they served here as a grounding base for the bright, seasonal flavors of sherried butter sauce, snappy local mushrooms and quick-pickled spring vegetables.

Catalan Seafood Stew, Preserved Lemon and Spanish Saffron

For whatever reason, I’d expected a zesty, sausage-laced stew. Instead, full flavored tuna, squid and sea bass were the clear focus of this dish, backed up by saffron infused fish broth and hearty tomato fondue.

Tender Poussin and Crisp Veal Sweetbread Sauté, Fingerlings, Fiddleheads and Verjus

As much as I loved the scallop course (did I say “love” enough times?) and even though the sweetbreads were over breaded, this was my favorite plate of the night. Great depth of flavor; perfectly organic and harmonious.

Composition of Chester County Grass Fed Lamb

The poussin and potatoes were both done two ways in the previous dish. Here we had a lamb triple play: lamb loin cooked sous-vide and seasoned with harissa; lamb confit; and a lamb meatball with a breadstick handle (a play on the classic lollipop lamb chop, just in case you hadn’t figured that out). And yes, that’s a ramp atop the loin. (Lest you think I’ve already broken Sunday’s promise, this meal actually preceded my adventures in ramp acquisition and preparation.) The meatball recipe would be great scaled-up to make meatloaf. Absolutely killer comfort food.

Sheep Milk Cheeses from Near and Far

From left to right: Fleur du Maquis (Corsica); Caña de Oveja (Murcia, Spain); Queso de la Serena (Extremadura, Spain); Pecorino Mugolano (Tuscany, Italy); Blu di Langa (Piedmont, Italy); Benedictine (Carr Valley Creamery, Wisconsin).

Meyer Lemon Egg Cream and Springtime Confections

Clockwise, starting with the egg: Meyer lemon egg cream, with meyer lemon custard, candied ginger, citrus zest, candied mint and yogurt crema; lemon pound cake with lemon curd; white chocolate macaron; vanilla snap cookie. Delicious stuff all around. Pastry chef Claire Shears, who’s rarely if ever on hand for the dinner shift, doesn’t get the attention she deserves. Patent that candied mint and sell it by the pound, guys, and people wouldn't have to wait a year to get a taste.

(Wine notes posted under separate cover.)

Talula's Table
102 W. State Street
Kennett Square, PA 19348 [map]
Talula's Table on Urbanspoon

Previous visits:


Samantha Dugan said...

That scallop looks devine...mmm, bacon dust. What an inspiring menu, the food looks clean, well thought out and fun. If you tell me it was perfectly seasoned I may just have to plan a trip! So many chefs just do too much for my palate, fresh, well cooked and simply seasoned and I am yours for life. Great post.

michelecolline said...

'Heirloom polenta'...

David McDuff said...

Bryan has a real knack for being able to conceptualize and deliver dishes with lots of ingredients that still maintain purity and focus of flavor, as well as the integrity of each individual component. I'd say the seasoning level is usually just about dead-on, at least to my taste.

Sounds precious, I know, but it was seriously delicious, unlike just about any other unadorned polenta I've ever had. Here's Anson Mills' website again, in case you want to do a little research -- once you've finished rolling your eyes, that is.

Anonymous said...

I'm so jealous. Can I be your date next time?


David McDuff said...

I think that can be arranged, Mandy. This time was very last minute/spur of the moment.

RougeAndBlanc said...

You are not kidding about the toughness in making reservation. I called up and the earliest reservation for May is 2010.
Thanks for recommendation tough.
I guest I have to re-read your other post to find a good place for my wedding anniversay dinner.

Femme Fermental said...

So jealous! You're making me want to go! Looks like I have to make the Spring menu!

David McDuff said...

I definitely wasn't kidding. Reservations are still a year out to the day. The first caller tomorrow morning gets the table 365 days later.

Do you mean replicate the menu at home? Sounds like a good mission. If you mean at TT, I think they're planning to change to the early summer menu right around Memorial Day. No matter... I'm pretty sure you'll dig it whenever you get to go.

Sarah said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Dave! Come back in soon to check out the Summer menu - it's stunning. Plus, Bryan's running over to our farmers market to grab last minute ingredients - super fresh!

KSQ Farmers Market (. . . and well-fed Talula's staff!)

David McDuff said...

Hey Sarah,
As you well know, it won't take much urging to get me to come out again. It's great to hear that Bryan is making use of some of the produce from the KSQ market. The market blog looks great, by the way. Good work!

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